Sustainability Science at the Paleontological Research Institution

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Tompkins Weekly         5-24-23

By Debra Freeman

Whether you are a Finger Lakes native or visitor, if you want to better understand global climate change and see local signs of sustainability, start at the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI). Affiliated with Cornell University, PRI comprises four buildings, 100 acres, and more: laboratories in Palmer Hall; outdoor education programs at Cayuga Nature Center; an old-growth forest, Smith Woods; a robust website of educational materials; and interactive exhibits at the Museum of the Earth.

The Museum of the Earth was sustainably built with rooftop solar panels, insulating earth-bermed walls, and groundwater recycling. It also houses one of the largest collections of fossils in North America.

Designed to show “how biology and geology are inextricably linked,” according to architect Michael Manfredi, interviewed elsewhere, the museum is also very kid friendly. “What’s not to like about whale and mastodon skeletons, fossil hunting, colorful fish, weird bugs, and fun crafts? Especially if you get to touch a lot of stuff and run through a blue glacier tunnel,” writes anthropologist Dr. Olivia M. Hall in her family travel blog,

Outside, native plants adorn Gorge Garden, a favorite spot of Dr. Don Haas, Director of Teacher Programming, whom we contacted to create a personalized tour.

The Lodge at the Cayuga Nature Center. Photo provided.

Inside, Dr. Haas might start with “one of the most striking exhibits,” the Barbara Page Rock of Ages, Sands of Time mural. Each of the 544 tiles uses a life-sized fossil image to represent a different million-year span of geologic time. (Check it out online at:

The mural nurtures sustainability because it “gives a sense of how life has changed over the past half a billion years since the Precambrian Era. It drives home that humanity is a speck in space and a blip in time,” one of the Earth Science Big Ideas that Dr. Haas and Sarah Miller teach. (

“For a sustainability-focused crowd, we’d pay special attention to the Changing Climate: Our Future, Our Choice exhibit,” which Dr. Haas also helped create. (See in real life or online at

In the Prep Lab, you can see fossils being prepared and chat with the Manager, Maureen Bickley.

Understanding how Earth and life on it have evolved “requires some understandings of how systems interact, and informs much of the work we do,” says Dr. Haas. “It’s the big umbrella answer to what I wish people would learn from visiting.”

Online, join virtual pubs with local scientists, browse past exhibits, and learn climate-friendly actions to take. Besides the “Big Ideas” web page, check out:

“An awe-inspired perspective is, for me, one of the things that drives me to work to protect the environment (and all of us who are dependent upon and part of that environment),” concludes Dr. Haas.

As Director Dr. Warren Allmon explains in an introductory video, the “one thing that I hope people leave with would be a belief that what we do on earth matters.”

Cayuga Nature Center, overlooking the gorges, has live animals, a pollinator garden, citizen science walks, and a six-story treehouse, TreeTops. Says Dr. Haas, “TreeTops feels like the must-see trail to do. It gives you a view of the falls on the nature center property and the gorge below it.” The Lodge building, which has ecology exhibits and “a lovely view of the lake from the front porch,” reopened for the summer on May 19th. (Frequent events listed at

Much smaller Smith Woods ( combines very short, walkable trails with rare and protected native species in an old-growth habitat that’s been undisturbed for over 20,000 years. If you visit, take only pictures, as many of the plants are protected under New York State Conservation Law.

Smith Woods is uber-sustainable. Of course, all trees mitigate climate change, clean the air and water, make the oxygen we breathe, prevent floods and erosion, and provide cooling shade, but old-growth forests do it better. Bigger trees store more carbon. Native forests house native species. More stable forests allow for more complex combinations of plants and animals. Time-tested tree stands are more resilient to fire, flood, and disease (

To taste the difference in sustainably grown plants, round out the day with a bottle of heirloom, sustainably managed cider from restorative Redbyrd farms in Trumansburg, which donates a portion of proceeds to the Iroquois confederacy cultural center, Ganondagan. Or head into downtown Ithaca for a locally sourced plant-based meal from the pioneering Moosewood Restaurant.

Who says sustainability can’t be fun?

Debra Freeman writes about science and is interested in sustainability.

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